Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Importance of 'executive functioning' in children

The measure for academic success for decades has been a person's intelligence quotient, or IQ. But new research published in the journal Child Development says that a thought process called "executive functioning," which governs the ability to reason and mentally focus, also plays a critical role in learning, especially when it comes to math skills.

"It's often thought that kids don't do well because they're dumb, and there's nothing we can do about it," says lead study author Clancy Blair, associate professor of human development and family studies at Pennsylvania State University. "But not only is executive function pivotal for academic success, it's amenable to training, and this training might make a big difference in a child?s ability."

From this fascinating Scientific American story. After identifying 'executive function' as important for math ability, it decomposes it further into two components (working memory and inhibitory control), and suggests the kind of problems that can be used for strengthening them.

Blair says that some tests of executive function can be used as training tools. A "backward digit span" test is a case in point: Person A recites a string of numbers, like 3, 6, 10, and person B has to respond with the same string, only in reverse order: 10, 6, 3. This task requires one to restrain his or her automatic inclination to mimic person A (inhibitory control), but also requires keeping the actual numbers in mind (working memory).


  1. Anonymous said...

    Doesn't it just mean that you can make up for stupidity with good old hard work - the Edison's good old "1% inspiration, 99% perspiration" stuff.

    Or am I missing out on something profound?

  2. Abi said...

    Surya: I don't know if hard work can make up for stupidity. I see this research as a reductionist effort to identify the components of math smarts: IQ and 'executive function'.

    While the latter sounds like another phrase for 'work ethic', its sub-components (working memory and inhibitory control) sound like they are much more than work ethic.

    To me, this was interesting because the sub-components can be learned.

  3. Anonymous said...

    abi: very interesting!

    surya: To the extent that hard work and repetition can "automatize" the mathematical rules that one has to keep in working memory, yes, hard work would count towards doing well in mathematics, I would think. Esp as many of the rules are not "intuitive" or have to be consciously evoked to override the automatic response.

    I like the inhibitory controls part btw. For example, take the standard question about the bat & ball for example (Frederick & Kahneman? TR help me out here). The bat & ball together cost 1.10. The bat costs a dollar more than the ball. what does the ball cost? One has to restrict the inhibitory impulse to say 10 cents and a ctually work out the problem (which is 5 cents for the ball). If you have done thousands of such problems, instead of relying on the most "intuitive" or right sounding answer (10 cents), you would automatically invoke the rules of finding an unkown quantity.


  4. Anonymous said...


    I esp like the part on inhibitory control - relevant not just for math, but for many other areas.

    Thanks for the clarifications..

  5. Tabula Rasa said...

    um, i think the bat and ball problem predates frederick and kahneman (well, definitely young frederick :-D) by a lot -- i remember seeing it in my old mir publishers russian math puzzle books or something. maybe martin gardner.

    surya, abi:
    'inhibitory controls' in some form or another are a major part of most models of self-regulation. the prototype amongst these is the cybernetic model proposed by miller, galanter, and pribram (1960), which states that goal directed behavior is regulated by two systems in a Test-Operate-Test-Exit routine. the example is that of a thermostat: check the temperature, if above or below cut off values then switch off, else continue working. without the inhibitor / monitor, it's the initial response that dominates.

    what n! is saying is that inhibitory responses (of all sorts) can be automatized with practice. you say no to a thousand chocolates, you'll find it easier to resist the 1001st; you do a thousand math problems, you'll be quicker doing the 1001st.

  6. Anonymous said...

    Thanks TR for that correction! I guess I heard Shane present the bat-and-ball thing and so just associated it with him and Kahneman.

    Russian math puzzle books? Now I'm impressed!